Turning The Screw - Build Tension From Scene To Scene

Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 19: Turning The Screw


Goal setting

  1. Continue writing the scenes of your novel. 

Breaking it down

Building tension from scene to scene

If you’re writing a thriller, you need to build tension until the moment the killer makes his next move – and another body turns up. In a romance, you want to create sensual tension until the moment the hero or heroine makes the next move – usually a kiss.

In my novel, I need to keep my main characters, Jenna and Matt, unsettled until their stalker makes his next move – something that will unnerve them, fill them with fear, and make them react to his behaviour. It’s about building, and then releasing, tension.

To build tension incrementally from scene to scene, from chapter to chapter, is difficult.  One way to do it is to drip-feed the reader small bits of information – planting little breadcrumbs that add up to a moment of released tension. You could call this the ‘striptease’ method.

For example, in one scene you reveal that a character, Annie, has a come to a small town to escape Robert. (You shouldn’t say she’s come to town ‘to escape a darkness in her past’ – that would be too vague.) In the next scene, you give some more information on Robert – that he hired a PI to follow her. The reader will start asking questions in the back of their mind. Who is Robert? A husband? Boyfriend?

This is good – you want the reader to ask questions about these breadcrumbs and turn the pages to find out more. In the next scene, you finally reveal that Robert is her ex-boss, who is trying to implicate her in a fraud scandal.

The idea is to reveal the information slowly. Don’t give away the goods too soon. Tease the reader with information for a bit and then reveal it in an unexpected way. 

Get ready for tension in 3-D

Another technique is the 3-D method: delay, delay, delay. For example, you could have your heroine Find a piece of paper under the windscreen wiper of her car. It’s a receipt from a drycleaner – the date of collection is today. She recognises the items as ones that match the blue suit her husband was wearing the day he went missing a few days earlier.

Now, you could have her rush to collect it from the drycleaner – but then the tension of the mystery would be over rather quickly. Why not have her drive over there only to find the shop closed? (Delay 1).

Then she tries to call the owner from the telephone number on the slip. Only he doesn’t answer – it goes to voice mail. (Delay 2).

The next morning, she arrives at the shop, to see the upset owner talking to a police officer. The shop has been vandalised – and guess what? – the suit is missing (Delay 3).

After three ‘delays’, the reader will get a bit frustrated that you’re not giving them some tangible information. So, in talking to the shop owner, she finds out a new clue. He remembers who brought the suit into the shop. It was a woman and he saw the car she pulled away in – the same Subaru her husband drove. Except she was alone.

Now, as the writer, you have another piece of information to tease out in a scene or two. Who was this woman? And how would your heroine get to find her?

Turning The Screw - Build Tension From Scene To Scene 

Playing with your imagination

This week I’m reading a great book on the iconic movie director, Roman Polanski, A Retrospective by James Greenberg. When making his experimental film, Cul-de-sac, Polanski remarks, ‘We just sat down and decided to write what we wanted, just what we wanted to see on screen – completely disconnected things, just feelings and characters.’

This sense of fun and exploration can help you when you’re stuck, whether you’re writing a screenplay or a novel. It takes you out of a linear way of thinking.

Sometimes, when I’m stuck, I take out a nature study A4 book. The great thing is that for every ruled page you have a blank page. On the blank page, I just draw whatever comes to mind – images I see in my mind when I think of my characters and their situation. On the ruled page, I jot down descriptions and words that I feel connect to the images.

It seems like a silly diversion but often it helps me distil the essence of what I’m trying to do in the broader story. You can do this for the over-arching story or for a major scene in your story … it’s just another way to get your imagination to come out and play. Often you’ll find you can pick up on a new plot strand or character motivation – something you can use in your manuscript. 

Timelock — 2.5 to 5 hours

Try to write for a half hour or an hour a day, more if you find yourself getting into the flow of writing.

5 Quick Hacks

  1. Take a scene in your current manuscript and see if you can break it up into two or three scenes using the techniques described above.
  2. Make a bullet list of all the obstacles that could stop your character from achieving a goal or getting information. See how many you could use in the story.
  3. Tell your plot to a friend or fellow writer. What questions do they ask? How can you hold their interest? At what point does their interest wane?
  4. Collect some images for a magazine or newspaper – create a collage of a scene from your novel on a piece of cardboard.
  5. Remember you have absolute control over your story – you can make your characters do what you need from them to make your plot work.

Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘All of us writers like to imagine ourselves as gods on Mount Olympus – the gods of story – making and decreeing the truth.’ – Dan Vining

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

Cul-de-sac Giph

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

by Anthony Ehlers

If you enjoyed this post, read:

  1. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 18: Shading A Scene
  2. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 17: Expect The Unexpected
  3. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 16: What Makes A Scene Work?

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